Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Wilde Gone Wild!

Today was the first visit with the bees in over a week, in part because manipulating the colonies is getting to be a more complicated and taxing thing!

So before going in, I made a list of the things that needed looking after:
  1. Find out if Wilde was making progress
  2. Transfer another frame of capped brood from Twain over to boost the workforce
  3. See whether Twain had made any use of the deep hive body I gave them last time
  4. Remove any stale sugar syrup, and
  5. Give new sugar syrup if the girls are still eating it

Since Queen Ellie over in Twain is running such a rocking and rolling outfit, I no longer have any empty medium frames reserved to substitute for the one I planned to steal, so I had to:
  1. Open Wilde first
  2. Grab an empty frame
  3. Open Twain
  4. Take a look at the deep hive body
  5. Remove it and set it aside along with TWO SUPERS FULL of honey (they are located, as they should be, between the roof of the colony and the brood area)
  6. Perform cursory inspection of Twain while selecting frame to steal
  7. Remove any hitchhiking workers and avoid removing or squashing queen
  8. Reassemble and close Twain
  9. Go back to Wilde
  10. Remove all supers and frames above brood nest
  11. Inspect structure of brood nest in order to select which frame to replace with the capped brood and to generally get some idea of how things are going
  12. Reassemble

Seems like a lot of steps, eh? That's why I had to sit down and think a bit before going in there. As the season goes on, the hive bodies in Twain are getting heavier and heavier, and they are harder for me to move. This is actually very good news: I already have more than 100 pounds of capped honey in there, almost enough for BOTH colonies to winter on.

But heavier hive bodies mean more bees get bashed: I can't perform the gentle-slow-sliding motions while bending over as well as I could when the frames were mostly empty. I have also had to give up bringing the camera during heavy manipulations, but the truth is that the girls (in Twain at least) are just making frame after frame of capped honey, and that is kind of a "seen one, seen them all" situation. Maybe I will try to grab you a picture next time.

It's also much hotter than before, and the bees (while still quite gentle) are easier to rile even as I am having trouble moving gracefully around them. And boy oh boy are there a lot of bees!

But I bet you are wondering what I found out, right?

Well, first of all, Wilde is doing better. That perceived traffic increase was for real: Queen Liz has been laying in every cell she can, and cells that held capped brood last time now have larvae a few days old. The workers have emptied the hive top feeder for THE VERY FIRST TIME, and they have worked every last frame in the bottom hive body. Weirdness, though: they have not moved up into the two other bodies I gave them (three medium bodies is your basic generic brood nest size). So, in order to entice them upward, I put that frame of brood stolen from Twain in the middle of the second (still empty) hive body. Considering the amount of capped brood that I saw in the bottom box, Wilde is right on the brink of exploding. There were a good 6 frames with two sides of mostly capped brood. Queen Liz was running around on the frame closest to the edge, looking for some room to get to work.

If the Wilde ones get their numbers up, and the honeymaking over in Twain continues apace, we might have enough bees and food for both colonies to make it through the winter. One thing I need to watch is whether those Wilde girls will get onto making more comb: we really need that. It would not be out of the question to steal some from Twain again, but boy is that heavy work! Sugar syrup supposedly prompts the drawing of comb, and younger bees are better at it than older ones, so maybe with this youthful onslaught, my final worry will pass.

Cross your fingers for us, OK?

Monday, June 27, 2005


The past few days have been the opposite of my normal life: I have been outdoors, standing up, and talking to hundreds of people. In fact, I have been teasing them that this is a Bee-vangelical tent meeting, trying to encourage all of them to keep bees, since "We, the Hobbyists" may in fact be the salvation of the honeybee.

Background: every year in this city, there is a major festival downtown in a famous park area, and I volunteered to help at the exhibit (sorry for the lack of details... not trying to be cute, just trying not to show up in search engine results involving "my city name" +bees).

The beekeeping club that offered the beginners' course has a tent there with a screened in colony of bees, and a live person demonstrating beekeeping. The bees were raised by one of the master beekeepers specifically for the festival, which has "American Food Culture" as one of its themes. We are in the "Honey" area, a place sponsored by a young entrepreneur with a pricey line of honey and no experience with bees.

But hey, he is the reason why we got this opportunity to have a fabulous time!

Our club was brought into this kind of late, and it truly did not look good. We had no volunteers organized, the equipment question was WAY up in the air, and the festival organizers did not take seriously our requirement that an Epi-Pen be available if we were going to bring live bees. So the main honcho for our club got me to organize the people to staff the booth, he worked on equipment, and the master beekeeper put together the colony. And the public did the rest.

We have been mobbed by intelligent, interested people of every age and background. We have had terrific questions, great feedback, and have reached out to a lot of people who may decide to keep bees. It's sad to confess, but since the last election I have had a very low opinion of the average citizen of this country. This whole thing is turning my head around. I have been asked things by children that I could not answer without the textbook, and wonderful stories, expressions of concern for bees, and delighted reactions have come from grown adults. The volunteers, most of whom had their doubts, have had a great time, and some have found themselves lingering for hours after their half-day shifts. "Time seemed suspended" is a frequent observation.

My job, now that the festival is going, is to show up at start and closing each day to be sure that the volunteers know where stuff is, what to do, and how to close down, as well as to be present for several shifts to demonstrate different parts of "the bee experience" and to answer questions.

My main presentations have been about the "observation frame" and "extracting honey." The former is a small tabletop glass box where we have put a single frame of brood each day in order to show people the development stages of bees. The kids particularly like this. We talk about the life cycle, ask folks if they can spot eggs, larvae, or emerging bees, and point out the differences between workers and drones. I invite people to sniff the frame, because bees smell good and it is a way to really connect with the reality of these living things. I say, "It's all made of flowers and sugar, how can that be bad?"

It was kind of funny that I was pressed into service on "extraction" as well, since the only time I ever did it was at ONE beekeeper club meeting. Apparently my memory is still OK though, because I was able to remember the process and actually quite a bit of detail!

In case you all want to benefit from my "wisdom," I will be grabbing pictures of the frame and the extraction equipment during my next shift, and will put HTML versions of the presentations in the linked files at right.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Names: A Humble Homage

It's an odd feeling, when you come to middle age and the greatest honor you can lay at the feet of your heroes is to name several thousand insects after them, but so it goes.

The colonies on the roof will be named after favorite authors, with a bias towards men, because the Queens of the latter will be named after great female leaders. Or at least ones that are deemed great in the eyes of The Management.

There are authors more august, and leaders more legendary, whom I could have chosen, but these four might actually have gotten on well. In fact, this would have been one rocking dinner party.

Colony 1 is now to be known as "Wilde"

Oscar Wilde Oscar Wilde was living proof that humane people need not be boring, and that wit is suitable clothing for wisdom. "The Selfish Giant" was read to me when I was little, "Lady Windermere's Fan" was on stage just yesterday, and I love them both. "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" are now declared required reading for this blog. Let me know if you want to borrow my copies.

The Queen of Colony 1 is Elizabeth Tudor

Elizabeth R An obvious choice, perhaps, but Queen Elizabeth knew quite a bit about doing alot with a little, and turning a country at odds with itself into a more peaceful and prosperous place. She ruled without a consort, and did a bit of consorting on the side. They say she might have written a few plays, and she is properly credited with a fistful of poems. What other world leaders do you know who have been mooted as possible alter-egos for Shakespeare? We'll just call her "Liz."

Colony 2 is now "Twain"

Samuel L. Clemens A hive is probably the only colony with which Samuel Langhorne Clemens would have allowed himself to be associated. He was a hoot to know, even though he took no prisoners on issues of race, injustice, narrow mindedness, greed, and ignorance. He lost as much money as he ever made by investing in new contraptions of the modern era, and loved one woman all his life.

The Queen of Colony 2 is Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt Monarchy is a poor fit for Mrs. Roosevelt, since so much of her life was about fairness, opportunity, and the individual. But it could be argued that the Queen is the hardest worker of all, both directing and creating the community around her...and she would have been used to being surrounded by males who did little enough for her. Finally, can you imagine a first lady today with a mind of her own, and the ability to lead with it? When Eleanor told the DAR that they could enter the 20th century, or linger in the 19th without her, the world moved a step forward. I hope she does not mind that we will call her namesake "Ellie."

Cool Bees

roof viewThe early blast of July-ish weather finally subsided late Wednesday, giving us several heavenly days of highs in the 70s and nights in the 60s. The first of two Bee AC devices, "Bee Cool," arrived just before the temperatures broke, but after several days of nearly comic intervention on my part.

The "lovely" picture today shows you the only truly practical measure I was able to take against the heat: every skanky old rug, nasty tattered bedspread, and light colored trash bag in the place now graces the roof, toning down the heat absorbed by the black asphalt-like surface. Before putting this assortment down, my bare feet would begin to blister during the few feet it took to walk to a hive. With the admittedly ugly coverings, I can stand there indefinitely.

My husband and I had discussed a different approach: a roll of (white) Tyvek spread neatly like carpet, and held down with the roof patch stuff I like to apply spring and fall. But the Home Depot was out of stock, and the bees were baking, and now I understand how farms come to look like farms, rather than movie sets. You gotta do what you gotta do, and looks be damned.

This was not, of course, the only approach attempted. When the wind wasn't bad, it was possible to rig a makeshift tentlike thingum using an old bedsheet, a number of garden stakes, sisal twine, and (of course) a couple of bungies. The stakes were tied down to various potted plants, skylights, and the ugly trellis that was supposed to host bounteous bean vines (but doesn't). My pride stopped all photography in this area. This probably worked for 36 hours, but as the weather changed, the contraption became a threat to bee navigation (and the neighbor's roof). We may revisit this idea later.

I also did the traditional things: cracking the roof of each hive back to aid ventilation, removing inner covers, and hovering in an impotent fashion.

But now the news from inside the hives:

Hot weather meant more bees hanging around outside the hives than working within, and more fanning of air than collecting of water, nectar or pollen. Going in to see the girls today, my questions were:
  • Had the hives been damaged?
  • had there been excessive bee mortality?
  • Had any work been done at all?
  • Was Colony 1 doing any better?
  • Were there any more of those suspicious-looking queen cells in Colony 2?

Rather than keep you in suspense, you should know: things are basically good.

This does not mean that the bees were happy to see me, of course. In fact, the gals in Colony 2 were basically in a crappy mood. To be expected, perhaps, after the recent stress.

It was interesting to observe a lot of Undertaker Bee activity as well. Around the hives and at the tops of the hive bodies as soon as I lifted the roof, bees could be seen taking away dead bodies, even pitching them over the edge, more so than I had ever seen before. Considering that the colonies are now 9 weeks old, and that the first bumping batches of bees started arriving about 6 weeks ago, it is natural that we would be starting to see the workers who were born here beginning to pass on in observable numbers.

There were some bee deaths that seemed a bit more suspicious, though: these were young-looking workers that may have starved. Brand new bees become nurses, and depend on food to come to them from outside as they look after new brood. Some of them probably starved when the workforce was floored by the heat. During the worst of the heat, it also seemed like there were drones with their wings chewed off pushed outside the hive. This is a behavior associated with preparation for winter: the girls off the slackers in order to preserve food supplies for the winter. I have been trying to find references to this as a heat behavior, but have not yet. If it isn't, those girls MUST have been in a lousy mood.

The hives, as structural units, were fine. Extreme heat can warp the shape of the cells, making them odd widths or causing them to point down a bit, pouring out their contents. We do not appear to have gone there.

Since the "Bee Cool" unit went in less than a week ago, it appears that alot of work took place in Colony 2. The workers spun out the entire medium deep box of frames, and have begun to fill it with nectar. Some is even capped. This means that Colony 2 now has two boxes full of honey stores, and three of brood (with some honey packed around them, too). I need to give them another box, and with a bit of luck they will make enough for the gals in Colony 1 as well.

Colony 1 is busier, and on check today the Queen is still doing her best with the workforce she has got: she is laying everywhere they have drawn comb, and there are some new tracings of more comb in the second medium deep box. The workers seem to be showing more interest in the sugar syrup, and there is more traffic out the front. The beekeepers in the local club did not think that I should give up on these girls, and after seeing how much brood there is in Colony 2 and how much spirit there is growing in Colony 1, I am inclined to keep trying.

Colony 2 had stopped making those silly queen cells, leading me to believe that they really needed that super last time. They are definitely getting another SOON.

The second Bee Cool arrived today, too: the man who makes them puts them together as orders arrive, and they are wonderfully thought out, and executed, devices. I will take some photos of the new one before installing it (since there is not quite as much of a temperature crisis right now) and show them to you here.

Monday, June 13, 2005

It's Too Darn Hot

honeybees fanningIt appears that beekeepers complain alot about the weather. At least this one does. We had a long, cold, slow Spring: the stats show this, as does my pallid excuse for a garden thus far. But the past two weeks have seen the temperatures shift into high gear, 5, 10, 15 degrees above normal. Due to the cold Spring and the insistent rain the main nectar flow was short and small here, but sometimes there can be a secondary flow from Dutch clover (and we had a lot of it around the 'hood). But Dutch clover does not like scorching and dry, and guess what came right after the shrimpy main bloom?

* Sigh. *

So I plan to keep feeding the bees as long as they will take sugar syrup from me, but this is a less desirable source of carbs than the natural plant nectars. At the Bee Field Day a week ago, one of the master beekeepers mentioned that bees fed a sugar syrup diet have a lifespan that is perhaps a week shorter than normal: the bees have to work extra hard to convert the sucrose into the sugars they can digest. Maybe with a little research I can find something better for them.

But it is so very hot now, and the bees are working very hard at cooling the colonies. The picture today is of a behavior called "fanning" that serves to cool and ventilate the hive. The girls poke their rear ends away from the colony and flap their wings to create a breeze. They burn a lot of energy doing this, and it keeps them from other hive activities like spinning comb or feeding larvae. This sucks for Colony 2, but for Colony 1 this is too expensive to maintain.

We have talked about ways to cool the hives, and I tried to buy some Tyvek at the hardware store to cover the black roofing material on which the hives stand. We hoped it would help reduce the amount of heat absorbed by the immediate surroundings. But there won't be any in stock until Friday, and I am not sure it will make enough of a difference.

So a few days ago I ordered something called "Bee Cool," a kind of Bee AC. I am somewhat ashamed of this purchase, so please, fellow beekeepers, go easy on me. Nonetheless, I have been eagerly awaiting the mailman, and wishing-like-hell every hot and humid day that it was already here.

Today was a bee-working day, in part to refill the syrup and in part to execute the continuing plan to save Colony 1. Many bees got squashed, I am afraid: the plan was to find two frames with lots of capped brood from Colony 2, and transfer them over to Colony 1. This is a last ditch effort, I have decided. After this, the struggling girls are on their own to flourish or not by September. If there are not enough of them, or enough honey stored, I will join the two colonies in the Fall. This means killing the new Queen.

In order to get to the part of Colony 2 where there was capped brood, I had to work my way down two honey supers. "Honey supers" are the hive boxes with frames like any other, but the bees fill them with comb full of honey rather than allowing the queen to lay eggs in them. The top super wasn't very full, but the next one must have weighed 30 pounds. This is very good.

When I got to the third box down, I found two decent combs of capped brood, trying not to take one where the queen might be. I did not see her today. The capped brood is most helpful to a struggling colony because the babies inside already have all the food, etc., they need to hatch and become workers. The stressed colony does not have to take care of them at all. Some of the workers from Colony 2 insisted on staying with the frames, though I tried to shake and brush them off. This is where the most bee carnage occurred. Let's hope I was right about the Queen being elsewhere, or I may be joining those colonies sooner than I thought.

Colony 1 has not improved appreciably since the last time I went in, more than a week ago. They just don't have enough bees. The queen is in there, and she is laying everywhere she can, but she does not have enough to work with. When the two new frames hatch, perhaps we will get a more virtuous circle going. Maybe we will know as soon as next week. There are young'uns baking in there already!

honeybees fanningIn closing, I am feeling a little bee fatigue. I think about them all the time, and after this major manipulation (well, it feels like one to me), the worrying about possible mistakes and outcomes is nagging around the edges, and I just don't need it. It will be a big relief when the Bee Cool gets here, and I know that the stress from the heat is substantially relieved. I'll keep pouring the syrup and hoping for the best, maybe with fewer heroics.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Oh, Honey Honey

honey jarsThere are many symptoms of beekeeper madness, but the compulsive collection of honey is primary. Philosophical types might choose to debate this, as honey – for some – might actually be the cause, rather than the symptom.

So which comes first, the honey or the bee?

The container in front started life as a Salvadoran soda bottle, but it is more precious now by far, because our cleaning lady, Ana, gave it to us. Her family keeps bees in El Salvador, and this is some of theirs. Her relative, the beekeeper, says his bees eat lots of coffee and sugar cane nectar. It is darker than anything else we have right now, but it is smooth and mild. Many beekeepers in other parts of the world use existing containers to package their honey, so this is truly the real thing. Wednesday is the beekeeper club meeting, and I am proudly bringing this one along (last month a member brought honey from Serbia).

This collection does not even begin to capture the range of honeys we have bought and et over the past few months. This grouping includes honey from here, from the Illinois prairie, from an island off Australia, and from two different places in Greece (as well as El Salvador), but we have had some cool "forest honey" from Germany that came from pine forests (Pine! Who knew?) My husband gets mad when I say it tasted German, but it really does. Addle-brained as it may be, it gives me a sense of how cooking sensibilities might have started in the environment.

We had lots of little jars with about a half inch of the gold stuff left as we went into Memorial Day weekend (May 30th, etc.), so we figured we would send off all the little gourmet bits by baking them into a Honey and Milk Custard (yes, MaryEllen's recipe). The recipe is linked at the right if you want it. It was divine, served to a gathering of people at a friend's house. The cup of honey it used is equivalent to the life's foragings of 96 bees (bees gather nectar equivalent to about half a teaspoon during that period of their life: the first half is spent nursing other bees, making honeycomb, and so on).

Finally, there are profound luggage implications for the honey fetish: my husband is on a business trip to Colorado and Southern California, so when he asked if there was anything he could get me... Anyway, he got two jars near Colorado Springs and we consulted at some length, via telephone, whether the laptop bag or (stuffed into socks) the main suitcase was the place. We have speculated on whether the California honey will taste of oranges. Will keep you informed.